It may or may not come as a surprise, but the food you consume (and how you consume it) can actually have an effect on your mood and mental wellbeing. This goes both ways, in that some foods can give your mood a boost, while others can leave you feeling worse than you were previously. The link between food and mental health is an interesting one, which is exactly why we’d like to discuss it today.
After all, you could be unknowingly eating large quantities of mood-lowering foods. Or, maybe some of your daily eating habits aren’t the best for your mental health. After reading this blog, you’ll be armed with a better understanding of which popular foods impact your mood, for better or for worse.
The Food and Mood Connection: How Does Eating Healthy Affect Your Mental Health?
Maybe you’re wondering how food affects your mood in the first place. How is this possible, and why does it happen?
At the core of the issue are the connections between your brain and gastrointestinal tract. Due to this close connection, diet and emotions can often go hand in hand. This has even led the gastrointestinal tract to sometimes be referred to as “the second brain.” Believe it or not, this is quite an accurate title.
In your gastrointestinal tract, there are billions of bacteria — and these bacteria can influence neurotransmitter production. What are neurotransmitters, then? Well, in this context, they’re actually important chemical substances, constantly carrying messages from your gut to your brain. Two common examples of neurotransmitters are dopamine and serotonin, both of which can have a positive impact on a person’s mood. A shortage of dopamine and serotonin can lead to low mood, and in extreme cases, it can result in depression.
Whenever you eat healthily, you’re actually promoting the growth of so-called “good” bacteria in your gut. This will then have a positive effect on the production of neurotransmitters, in turn. On the other hand, if your day-to-day diet is laden with high-sugar junk foods, you could experience inflammation within your gut. This inflammation will make it more difficult for your body to adequately produce mood-boosting neurotransmitters. As soon as this production begins to be impeded upon, you may notice a negative effect on your mood. This is why we say that food and mood go hand in hand.
As we’ve already alluded to, sugar is probably the most common culprit behind inflammation in the gut. Even worse, sugar can help to feed any “bad” bacteria that are currently in your gastrointestinal tract. Sugar is tricky because it can actually result in a temporary spike in certain “feel good” neurotransmitters, such as dopamine. This can be deceptive, leading individuals to believe that consuming sugary foods will boost their mood, making them come back for more.
However, the truth is, this is a highly temporary effect. When neurotransmitter production spikes in this way, it’ll be followed by a crash. Naturally, this crash will have an extremely negative effect on your mood. This can lead to a sort of vicious cycle, with your neurotransmitter production spiking and plummeting if you regularly consume sugary junk foods.
If you’re hoping to experience fewer fluctuations in mood, then it may be time to reduce the amount of sugar you’re consuming on a day-to-day basis. A diet based on healthy foods can actually promote an overall happier mindset — it could also make it easier to stay focused. While healthy diets can aid in reducing symptoms of depression and anxiety, diets featuring a large amount of sugar and junk food can increase the risk of health issues like dementia or a stroke.
So, if you’re looking to boost your mood, then a healthier diet could be the solution you’ve been searching for. It really should be no surprise that food and your mental health are directly correlated. Even if it’s not a fix-all, focusing on what you eat can still make an incredible difference in your mental health and overall happiness levels.
Foods That Improve Mood and Happiness Levels
When food is better for the health of your gut, it’s often also going to be better for your mood and mental health. Here’s a short list of some gut-friendly foods, able to enhance the production of mood-lifting neurotransmitters.
If you’re in search of a good mood, these foods for depression could be the way to go:
1. Dark Chocolate
That’s right, dark chocolate is more than just a delicious treat — it can also be useful to boost your mood, and not simply due to a sugar high, like many other confections. Instead, dark chocolate is packed full of other mood-lifting compounds and has less sugar than other treats.
When you consume dark chocolate, you can expect a release of “feel good” compounds, such as theobromine and N-acylethanolamine. In fact, N-acylethanolamine is even chemically similar to certain cannabinoids. It’s still up for debate whether dark chocolate contains enough of these compounds to have a significant effect on mood — but these compounds aren’t the only mood-boosting aspect of dark chocolate.
In addition, dark chocolate is full of healthy flavonoids, which can help with the flow of blood to your brain, boost overall brain health, and reduce inflammation. All of these effects can help with mood regulation.
Try to avoid milk chocolate, which is higher in sugar and fat, and isn’t going to have the same benefits as consuming dark chocolate.
2. Fatty Fish
You’ve probably heard quite a bit about omega-3 fatty acids, considering their health benefits have been touted quite a bit over the past several years. Even so, you may not be familiar with the specific benefits of omega-3 fatty acids.
To start, fatty fish is one of the best dietary sources of omega-3s and is an easy (and tasty) one to incorporate into your diet. For instance, both albacore tuna and salmon are packed full of two particular omega-3s — eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). Both EPA and DHA have been linked to lower levels of depression, making them some of the best dietary mood boosters out there.
Plus, omega-3s can help support the fluidity of brain cell membranes. They may even play an important role in cell signaling and brain development. With a healthier mind comes a better mood.
3. Fermented Foods
Fermented food comes in a wide variety of forms, so it’s pretty difficult to get bored with them. Examples of some popular fermented food items are:
And those aren’t even the only options. Thanks to the fermentation process itself, these foods are loaded with health-supporting probiotics. Basically, during fermentation, live bacteria are given a chance to thrive. And due to these bacteria, the food item being fermented will then convert sugars into acids and alcohols.
Probiotics are live organisms, and they can help to support healthy bacteria growth within your gut. With this growth of healthy bacteria, comes easier production of neurotransmitters, eventually leading to improved production of serotonin within your brain. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that can have a huge impact on mood and human behavior, leading it to be considered one of the “feel good” chemicals within the brain. Serotonin levels can even play a role in appetite, stress response, as well as sex drive.
Worth noting is the fact that not all fermented foods are high in probiotics, so that’s something to be wary of. For instance, foods like beer and some breads aren’t especially probiotic heavy, due to the process of cooking and filtering. So, keep that in mind when you’re building a more probiotic-rich diet.
4. Nuts and Seeds
There’s a ton of creative ways you can go about adding more nuts and seeds into your diet — plus, there are so many varieties for you to choose from. However, how do they work as mood boosters?
In essence, both nuts and seeds are chock-full of healthy fats, plant-based proteins, and fiber. Fiber, in particular, is able to slow down the digestion of other carbs. This way, sugar is more gradually released into your bloodstream. So, less of a spike and a crash, allowing your energy levels to stay stable.
Alongside the stable blood sugar levels that fiber can provide, comes increased mood and energy levels. This can also help to control irritability and mood swings.
Nuts also provide you with tryptophan. Tryptophan is an amino acid and is responsible for serotonin production. A variety of nuts and seeds (including cashews, almonds, walnuts, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, and sesame) are high in this particular mood-lifting amino acid.
Other nuts, including pine nuts, Brazil nuts, and almonds, are good sources of selenium and zinc. Both of these minerals are quite important to healthy brain function, and deficiency has been linked to higher rates of depression. Still, further research is needed to explain this connection.
Foods That Affect Your Mood Negatively
While some foods can supply you with a boost in mood, others can lead to a drop. Here’s a list of a few of those foods — if you’re looking to keep your mood up and your mind clear, then it may be wise to cut down on these items:
- Soda (including diet soda)
- High-sugar juices
- Agave nectar, as well as other high fructose sweeteners
- Bagels and other breads made with “simple carbs”
- Cold cut meats
- Vegetable shortening
- Salted peanuts
- Baked goods, such as muffins and cakes
Those are just a few examples, although the general rule remains: foods that are high in sugar, as well as foods that are highly processed, are probably going to be worse for your mood. Additionally, alcohol is considered to be a depressant, making it equally subpar at keeping your mood up.
Food Habits to Boost Your Mood
The specific food items you’re eating aren’t all that can affect your mood. Certain food-related habits and tendencies can also play a role. If you’re looking to boost your mood, consider building a better relationship with food and adopting the following habits:
We’ve already talked about stable blood sugar and its effect on mood. Well, blood sugar levels are based on more than just the particular foods you’re choosing to eat. In order to maintain steady blood sugar without spikes and plummets, you should avoid going long periods of time without eating.
When you create a habit of not eating for long stretches of time, followed by eating large amounts of food, you’re probably experiencing frequent blood sugar drops. Whenever your blood sugar plummets, you’re more likely to feel irritable, tired, or even depressed. If you’re eating regularly and opting for foods that slowly release energy (whole-grain bread, nuts, and seeds, oats, etc.), your levels are more likely to stay stable, and you can avoid drops and spikes in blood sugar.
Getting Your Five a Day
Not only should you be eating fruits and vegetables, but you should be consuming the correct amount of them. Each day, try to adhere to the “five a day” doctrine, which recommends that you consume at least five daily servings of fruits and vegetables.
Further, try to eat a wide variety of different fruits and vegetables, in order to get a bigger array of nutrients. Focus on consuming fruits and veggies of many colors, as this is an indicator of the nutrients they may contain.
Meal Planning and Mindful Eating
Adding good-for-your-mood foods to your regular diet may take some extra effort at first. But, healthy, mood boosting foods don’t have to be boring or hard to make! Try preparing a week’s worth of chopped veggies and soaked/cooked beans ahead of time to make it easier to whip up a homemade meal that’s as tempting as take-out.
If meal prepping isn’t for you, stock up on frozen or canned veggies- just look for low sodium products to avoid too much salt. You can also try microwavable grains, such as: quinoa, brown rice or whole-grain couscous.
Looking for a lower carb option? Try swapping your grains and carbohydrates with vegetable-based options instead. It’s easy to find cauliflower products at almost any grocery store now, try cauliflower pizza crusts, cauliflower “rice” and cauliflower “mashed potatoes”.
No matter what changes you decide to implement, just remember, the basic rules of nutrition still apply. Focus on making a habit of staying hydrated, eating regular meals, and be mindful of how much caffeine and alcohol you consume.
You may not be able to make all of these changes at once and that’s okay! Even just small adjustments like being mindful of what you’re eating and appreciating the good feeling a nutritious meal gives you afterwards can make a big difference over time.
Chief Operating Officer, The Compounding Pharmacy of America
Matthew Poteet, Pharm.D. graduated with Honors from Lee University with a Bachelors of Science in Biological Science. After his undergraduate training, he completed the Doctor of Pharmacy program at Mercer University Southern School of Pharmacy, graduating in 2004. Dr. Poteet has spent much of his pharmacy career on staff at two of the most prestigious academic teaching hospitals in the Southeast; Emory University in Atlanta and Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville. At these institutions he received extensive experience and training in sterile products compounding.
He returned home to East Tennessee in 2010, where he has held the position of Pharmacy Director at two sterile products pharmacies in Knoxville. Matthew lives in Knoxville with his wife, Chris. Dr. Poteet is Tennessee’s first Board Certified Anti-Aging Pharmacist by the American Academy of Anti-Aging Medicine.